Cason: Historical accounting: Fact, not myth
This is a pivotal time in Indian country for the class of Individual Indian Money account holders represented in the Cobell v. Kempthorne lawsuit. As the Department of the Interior makes significant progress conducting the historical accounting of funds that went into and out of IIM accounts, it is apparent that few mistakes in the accounting have been found and that ample trust records exist to support our accounting efforts.
No doubt that over the years, the Cobell case has brought needed attention and resources to improve the management of Indian trust assets. However, instead of breathing a collective sigh of relief that the historic administration of the Indian trust funds has, for the most part, been careful and accurate and that beneficiaries were receiving the funds collected from the use of their trust assets, the plaintiffs are continuing to spread fear, mistrust and doubt among class members. In a recent Indian Country Today op-ed, the plaintiffs state that ;'Indians have been robbed of billions - not millions - of dollars'' and that the ''robbery'' continues even today [''Accounting fiasco result of government myth-weaving,'' Vol. 27, Iss. 28].
The lead plaintiffs have claimed that as much as $176 billion is owed to account holders. This figure is based on the largest myth of all: the assumption that the government has failed to distribute a single penny of the money it has collected on behalf of Indian accountholders since the inception of the trust over 100 years ago. Every account holder who has ever received a payment from his account ought to know that this assumption is preposterous. In fiscal year 2007, for example, more than 530,000 checks were distributed to account holders worth more than $200 million.
It is troubling that the plaintiffs continue to propagate such myths, especially in the face of volumes of evidence to the contrary, and in light of other pressing matters in Indian country that need attention. During the 10-day trial on Interior's historic accounting plan in October 2007, facts about how the historical accounting is being accomplished as well as the accounting findings to date were shared with the U.S. District Court. While the plaintiffs' attorneys had the opportunity to question every government witness and to introduce their own witnesses, no evidence of government ''robbery'' was introduced. No evidence to demonstrate billions of dollars of undistributed funds was provided to the District Court judge. Not a single account holder, including lead plaintiff Ms. Elouise Cobell herself, was willing to testify that she was failing to receive funds collected on her behalf.
We encourage all individual Indian beneficiaries and other interested parties to become more fully informed about the status of the historical accounting project. Transcripts of each day of the trial and Interior's historical accounting plan are readily available for review and thoughtful consideration. (For information on obtaining these documents, call the Trust Beneficiary Call Center at (888) 678-6836.)
It is true that before the accounting began, Interior didn't know what the results would be or what historic problems with the trust it would find. It wasn't known if the records required to perform the accounting, spanning many decades, would be available. However, no evidence that ''more than a billion trust records have been systemically destroyed,'' as plaintiffs allege, has been found. The Indian trust records needed for the accounting generally do exist and have been collected, indexed and imaged. Based on the findings from the accounting to date, mistakes have been relatively few and relatively minor. Overpayments have been found at about the same rate as underpayments.
One heartening finding of the historical accounting has been that the vast majority of the BIA employees who were in charge of recording each financial trust transaction did their jobs well and kept the important trust records that are required for the accounting today. They faithfully documented funds that came into and went out of the trust. Indian trust employees knew they were serving their neighbors, friends and family members and performed their duties with honesty and integrity. Indian beneficiaries also deserve credit for knowing when their payments were due and for what amounts, and for working with Interior employees when problems needed to be addressed. Today, Interior stands ready to mail tens of thousands of completed historical account statements as soon as the District Court judge approves them for distribution.
Even though Interior has found that it can successfully perform the accounting, plaintiffs' attorneys continue to insist that an accounting is impossible. They want the court to simply ignore what the records indicate. We, like the plaintiffs in this case, are awaiting the opinion of the U.S. District Court regarding the sufficiency of our historical accounting plan and the results that have been provided to the court to date. All three branches of the federal government have been intimately involved in the design, funding and oversight of this important initiative and are dedicated to a full, fair and final resolution of this matter.
Today, Interior knows more than it did a decade ago when Elouise Cobell filed her lawsuit. Individual Indian beneficiaries can have confidence in the historical accounting work being done; confidence in the government employees, highly credible accounting firms, statistical consultants and historians participating in the effort; and confidence in the integrity of the data they receive.
Jim Cason is the associate deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior.